I was seventeen years old, and we had just gone to the circus. Not some two-bit, tired-elephant circus either, but A Circus, hailing all the way from France with its haunting melodies and impossible contortionists. A single ticket had been two days’ pay at the gift shop where I’d waited away the majority of my summer. I had been half-pining for him from behind those glass counter tops in Minneapolis for two months while he’d spent the summer at Jewish camp — where, as he would later confess, he had dated someone else. Someone more Jewish, which I suppose could have incited jealousy in my shiksa heart. But at the age of seventeen I was much more casual about these things.
“So, are you still with her?” I asked simply. “Nope,” he said.
After all of the acrobats had finished twirling in the air and erupting fireballs from their painted lips, Noah* drove me deep into suburbia, Minnesota, where I’d planned on sleeping over at my friend Melissa’s place — past the glowing Mall of America and still further along that dark, stretching highway. When he pulled into the empty parking lot and I reached into the back seat of his parents’ car to grab my purse, he suddenly kissed me: a lovely, long soft kiss. I nearly fell onto the asphalt as I closed the door.
“Melissa,” I would later announce, standing on the soft, snowy carpet of her room. “Noah and I . . . just . . . kissed.”
“Is he your boyfriend now?” she would squeal.
“I think he’s my boyfriend now.”
She would clap and jump, and I would clap and jump, swoon on her bed, and smother myself with pillows, and lose myself in daydreams, and relive that kiss, over and over and over. It was in fact a very nice kiss, even by current standards.
Suddenly I sat straight up. “Oh my God,” I said. “Melissa, I have a boyfriend, and I don’t even know what a penis looks like.”
“I mean, I’ve seen drawings — like, diagrams or whatever, with the vas deferens and all that. But what will I do when . . . when . . . I don’t know . . . ”
“When you give him a handjob or something?”
“Aaagh!” I cried. “And I don’t even know what color they are!”
Melissa instructed me to calm the freak down.
“We have the internet here,” she said. “We can just do a search for . . . penis.”
We waited for her parents to go to sleep, then we tip-toed to her dad’s office. This was in the days of AOL and modems, when Going Online was an event, not a dull default status — an event that had the unfortunate habit of announcing itself to the world with high-pitched static and digital ring tones. I prayed her father wouldn’t wake up. I prayed that if he woke up, he’d interrupt us in time.
“You’ve got mail!” the speakers chirped. I covered my face with my hands.
“Okay, okay,” Melissa said. “We’ll just take a look at a few, so you can get a general idea, and then we’ll sign off.” She began typing. “P-E-N-I-S.”
What I wouldn’t have given for a Wikipedia entry, had it existed! Something brief, non-threatening, and to the point: something educational, something flaccid. The pages of results were endless, so probability statistics demand that a similarly informative site lurked somewhere, in those depths. But in our haste we hardly glanced at the link names, and clicked immediately, haphazardly. Each link brought us to an image almost wanton in its graphicness, containing at least one of two scenarios:
1.) A horribly diseased penis.
2.) An overwhelmingly huge penis.
“Holy Christ, that’s what gonorrhea looks like?” I whimpered.
“This one’s like nine feet long!” Melissa cried.
“What’s growing on that one? Mushrooms?”
We slunk out of our chairs and onto the floor, pretended to hurl all over the desk, and wished we’d never been born as diseased mastodonic penises danced through our heads. We eventually gave up on finding any semblance of “normal”, and disconnected to brush our teeth and change into pajamas.
I can remember standing in front of her parents’ bathroom mirror and staring down my reflection. My dreams that night were troubled, Lynchian.
Noah and I dated for eight months before we graduated from high school and he left for Israel and I left for New York. Four months into our relationship I would see my first penis, which to my relief was neither diseased nor mastodonically huge. Seven months into our relationship I would appear in a doorway wearing nothing but a chiffon babydoll in a seduction attempt, eighteen years old and ridiculous. “It hurts,” I would say. “I’m stopping,” he would say. “I’m sure it will get better” I offered. “I don’t want to hurt you, ever” he’d say.
He called me from an airport pay phone as he departed for his new life overseas, leaving a message on my voicemail. He didn’t identify himself, he didn’t say anything beyond three words, before hanging up.